Every company, regardless of the size, owns a variety of valuable assets, from machines and parts to finished products and much more. Therefore, asset tracking plays a critical role in the effective management of any workplace. Asset tracking is the process of keeping track of a company’s physical assets, i.e. determining information such as the location, utilisation, and status of these assets. The close monitoring of company assets can prevent losses, improve inventory management and maximise asset utilisation rate.
In manufacturing companies, effective asset tracking is also critical. Delays in production due to a missing part or tool in the production line drive up costs for production, warehousing, labour, and more. Asset-tracking technologies or real-time location tracking systems (RTLS) minimise these risks by defining the actual usage of an asset, collecting location data in real-time and displaying it on a dashboard, providing factory employees with a real-time overview of the production process.
Whether to track parts, tools or people, RTLS technologies benefit factories in many ways. This article focuses on three different asset-tracking technologies, RFID, UWB and BLE, giving an overview of their respective benefits and drawbacks, as well as specific examples of products and use cases.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a long-established technology for asset tracking. It involves the use of electromagnetic fields to identify and track assets. Asset data is first encoded in RFID tags. This data is then read by a special reader via radio waves, allowing the object to be identified. Some benefits of this technology are that RFID tags are small, low-cost and have a long lifetime. One drawback over other technologies like UWB and BLE is that the set-up can be quite complicated and expensive.
With the help of BarTender® software from Seagull Scientific, the creation of RFID tags becomes much more straightforward and efficient. The Washington-based company has over 30 years of experience in labelling. Their software automatically transforms information into RFID tags. With intelligent templates, labels can be created much more efficiently and with a lower likelihood of errors. Furthermore, the user-friendly design means that no coding skills are required to modify tags. The software is available in four options tailored to companies of different sizes.
Seagull Scientific’s secure solution is particularly useful for companies in the aerospace industry, where safety and compliance with regulatory requirements are paramount. The labelling process adheres to international standards such as ATA Spec 2000. Effective tracking of parts also provides protection against theft and counterfeit.
Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology is one of the newer asset-tracking technologies available on the market. As its name suggests, UWB works by transmitting data over a large section of the radio spectrum. With the ability to quickly locate assets in short-range at an accuracy of 10 cm, it is said to be the most precise technology for RTLS. This high accuracy is not affected by difficult environmental conditions, which are often characteristic of factories. One downside is that UWB tags require batteries to operate, and these usually do not have a long lifetime.
KINEXON’s RTLS is based on UWB technology and is designed with the most challenging industrial environments in mind, meaning it is characterised by high precision and maximum robustness. The Munich-based company have developed a solution which requires only one day for set-up and installation. The hardware includes KINEXON’s ePaper Tag, Asset Tag, Vehicle Tag and Anchor Network. Asset tags are ultra-small industry-specific UWB sensors. Sensor data is recorded by the anchors, without interfering with nearby WLAN or Bluetooth applications.
There is also a software component, namely the KINEXON RIoT, a real-time IoT platform which allows you to effectively manage the RTLS, giving an overview of the location and status of all assets. With their innovative UWB-based asset-tracking solution, KINEXON has supported leading automotive supplier, Continental, to realise a fully automated supply chain. In their Regensburg plant, real-time tracking now takes place across an area of 30,000 sqm.
Alongside RFID and UWB, Bluetooth is one of the most used technologies when it comes to asset tracking. Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a low power variation of Bluetooth. BLE remains in sleep mode until a connection is initiated, allowing for significant power saving. It can transmit a small amount of data in a short-range. Some other advantages are that it is cost-effective and requires no additional infrastructure. However, BLE is usually not as precise as RFID and UWB, having an accuracy level of around 2-3 m.
Comarch, a multinational software company based in Poland, offer a complete asset-tracking solution for factories, with BLE being a key component. Target assets such as goods and vehicles are equipped with Comarch Beacons, which are compact BLE devices. These beacons emit real-time signals to IoT Hubs installed, for example, on walls. Hubs connect all Beacons to the IoT platform. Employees responsible for picking up loads also wear BLE bracelets. The IoT platform is cloud-based, enabling continuous access to location data and inventory data via web and mobile applications.
Comarch's asset-tracking solution reduces manual work by facilitating automatic, reliable identification of objects throughout all production stages. This in turn decreases the likelihood of error, ensures the production process is line with quality standards and optimises inventory management. Comarch’s solution also works with RFID tags.
With such a wide range of asset-tracking technologies on offer, it can be difficult to choose the ideal solution for your production environment. Technologies like RFID, UWB, BLE and others each have their advantages and disadvantages, which need to be carefully researched before making a decision. One thing is for sure: RTLS technologies are essential in order to properly manage all of the valuable assets contained in factories.
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